Konerko a fixture on Chicago's South Side
Most proud of 'toeing the line' every day for teammates, managers
CHICAGO -- This is the last weekend in Paul Konerko's 21-year baseball career, and as he puts on and takes off his White Sox uniform, steps into the batter's box and out again, he's being bombarded with memories. He has a million of them and at times it might seem he's played with that many different teammates.
But that latter number, at least when you stick to his 16 seasons in Chicago, is actually 292. The impressive thing about that is it's so much higher than the time he's spent on the disabled list -- 47 days in three stints, all while playing 2,346 games.
That's a ballplayer's type of ratio, and is one of the things that Konerko is the most proud about.
"I'm proud of the games played,'' said Konerko, a career .279 hitter with 1,386 RBIs who ranks second in White Sox history with 2,265 games played, said before Thursday's series opener against the Royals. "I played a lot of games and I felt like for the majority of my career here, I was available. There was a little weekend there or a day there, only on the DL a couple of times, I'm definitely proud of that. ... You pretty much want to know that you toed the line every day and that you were ready and available for your manager and your teammates, that you were there for the fight. I think for the most part I was. ''
Traded to the White Sox from the Reds after the 1998 season, Konerko hit a homer in his first game with the Sox, on Opening Day in Seattle. More importantly, then-manager Jerry Manuel installed him as the regular first baseman after being used as a third baseman and outfielder with the Dodgers and Reds.
Among the players on that team: Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Mark Johnson, Mike Caruso, Jeff Liefer, Liu Rodriguez, James Baldwin, Mike Sirotka, Jaime Navarro, Kip Wells and Bill Simas.
"For me, I feel like I was going to have a successful career,'' Konerko said. "I think I felt that from early on. I'm talking when I was in high school. I felt like there's no reason why I shouldn't play professional baseball and if I play professional baseball, there's no reason I shouldn't be in the big leagues. It wasn't easy, but I felt like if I didn't have a career that was pretty lengthy in the big leagues, I didn't max out what was given to me.''
A 24-year-old on a 95-win American League Central championship team in 2000, Konerko had the first of his six All-Star seasons -- which was also the first of six seasons in which he drove in 100-plus runs -- in 2002.
Among the teammates on that team: Mark Buehrle, Bob Howry, Kenny Lofton, Aaron Rowand, Royce Clayton, Willie Harris, Joe Borchard, Todd Ritchie and Damaso Marte.
By then, Konerko had realized there was nowhere he'd rather play than Chicago.
"It's just a good town, in the summertime, when it's warm,'' Konerko said. "When it's cold early on, it's tough to get out of the house, and I know the winters for you guys are tougher. But, certainly, when the summer gets here, I don't think there's a better situation.''
Konerko was gifted with talent as a hitter but has always been an intense worker, studying his mechanics and taking thousands of what players call dry swings trying to find swings that he could repeat. Mike Gellinger, a former Minor League infielder who worked as a batting-practice pitcher and extra coach, had developed a great rapport with Konerko. But it was in 2003, when Greg Walker returned to his old organization as batting coach, when he finally combined his swing with a belief that it was built to last.
"Without those two guys … there's no way I would have played [this] long,'' Konerko said. "It would probably be early 30s and be done. …There's no way to explain how much those guys mean to me.''
When the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, Konerko was Ozzie Guillen's cleanup hitter, batting in between Jermaine Dye and Carl Everett. His Game 2 grand slam off Houston's Chad Qualls is the most replayed moment of his career. He lists it as his favorite memory at U.S. Cellular Field, where he has hit 259 of his 439 regular-season home runs.
"That one, in as many games as I've played here, I've never seen the place like that,'' Konerko said. "That game sticks out.''
Among the teammates that got World Series rings: Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, A.J. Pierzynski, Geoff Blum, Joe Crede, Tadahito Iguchi, Juan Uribe, Orlando Hernandez, Bobby Jenks and Neal Cotts.
Konerko, who almost left as a free agent after the World Series season, rode an emotional roller coaster at the end of the 2008 season. The White Sox lost five in a row in late September to blow a 2 1/2-game division lead, but arose from the dead by winning consecutive elimination games against the Indians, Tigers and -- in Game 163 -- the Twins.
Among his teammates along for that wild ride: Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Nick Swisher, Dewayne Wise, Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez, John Danks, Octavio Dotel, Clayton Richard and Gavin Floyd.
"The Blackout Game, that's one you don't forget,'' Konerko said. "Jim's home run was so great. Actually, that whole stretch, win every single game. … That stretch is definitely something you remember.''
Konerko's five-year contract extension ended in 2010. The year before that, a second straight off season, he confided in Walker that he was seriously considering retiring at the end of the deal. Walker's response triggered a rebound in which Konerko hit .312 with 39 homers and 111 RBIs, and would finish a career-best fifth in MVP voting.
"I said to him, 'I think I'm going to be done after next year, after my contract is up in 2010.'" Konerko said. "And he said, 'Do you think you can play longer than that?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm sure I could.' And he goes, 'Well if you don't, you're BS.' That was exactly what he said. I was like, 'Well what do you mean?' And he's like, 'If you don't max out with everything you've got, that's what you are.' There's definitely a satisfaction knowing [I went] as far as I could with it because I didn't want to let him down and, of course, [let] myself down.''
Among his teammates that season: Chris Sale, Edwin Jackson, Jake Peavy, Omar Vizquel, Juan Pierre, Gordon Beckham, Andruw Jones, Dayan Viciedo and Manny Ramirez.
Konerko is pleased he's going out as he is -- a role player on a team that gave its best, even if it came up short. His batting average has dropped in each of four seasons since 2010, to .217 this season, when he has hit only five home runs. He's enjoyed watching Jose Abreu have a monster rookie season and has taken time to appreciate the places he's visited and, especially, the people he's gotten to know.
In his final season, among his teammates: Adam Dunn, Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie, Adrian Nieto, Jordan Danks, Carlos Sanchez, Jose Quintana, Felipe Paulino, Maikel Cleto, Scott Carroll and Ronald Belisario.
Through all 16 seasons with the White Sox, Konerko maintained a strong relationship with team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. He even gave him the ball he used to record the last out in the '05 World Series.
"If the phone rings and it's [Reinsdorf], I'm always going to pick it up and say, 'What can I do for you?'" Konerko said. "There will never be a time that doesn't happen.''
Konerko's teammates next season: His wife, Jennifer, and his children, Nicholas, Owen and Amelia.